UPDATE 1-War crimes prosecutor to investigate Mali conflict

By Sara Webb

AMSTERDAM, Jan 16 (Reuters) - The International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor said she had launched a formal investigation into suspected war crimes in Mali, following rebels' seizure of large tracts of the west African state.

Long considered one of West Africa's most stable democracies, Mali descended into chaos in March when soldiers toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum that enabled Tuareg rebels to seize two-thirds of the territory.

But Islamist extremists, some allied with al Qaeda, have hijacked the revolt, leading to fears that Mali could become a base for militant attacks and prompting France to send troops and carry out bombing raids in the Islamist-controlled northern half of the country.

"Since the beginning of the armed conflict in January 2012, the people of Northern Mali have been living in profound turmoil," ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in a statement.

"At each stage during the conflict, different armed groups have caused havoc and human suffering through a range of alleged acts of extreme violence. I have determined that some of these deeds of brutality and destruction may constitute war crimes."

Bensouda said she would investigate a wide range of crimes including murder, mutilation, torture and rape, as well as sentencings and executions that were conducted without a judgment from an established court.

She said the investigation would also cover "intentionally directing attacks against protected objects", a reference to Islamists smashing traditional Sufi shrines in the ancient caravan town of Timbuktu - acts reminiscent of Afghanistan under the Taliban.

The investigation will focus on crimes committed since January 2012 in the three northern regions of Mali, she said.

"There is still turmoil in North Mali and populations there continue to be at risk of yet more violence and suffering," Bensouda said.